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New Old Towns

Janet Collins, Cottage Magazine - September - October  2003

A century ago, Trout Lake City was a boisterous mining town. Today, it's a quiet backwater, frequented by cottagers and fisherman. Similarly, until 1950, the value of nearby Ferguson was beneath the ground. Now, its value is a lot easier to reach.

Trout Lake City and Ferguson are both found in the Lardeau district of the West Kootenay region of south-eastern BC. A bit off the beaten track, the area is garnering an increasing amount of attention from recreational property buyers, not just because of traditional amenities like rivers and lakes, but for less tangible allures, the chance to own a piece of history.

David Thompson first explored the region for the North West Company between 1807 and 1811, traversing the length of the Columbia River and found-ing a series of fur trading posts west of the Rocky Mountains. The fur trade traditionally didn't encourage settlement, however; it was gold, discovered about a half century later, that brought the first wave of settlers to the area.

The Lardeau's glitter was more modest- silver, zinc and lead. The area was laid out in the late 1890s by the Ferguson Brothers, owners of the nearby Triune Mine. By 1900, the town of Ferguson had about 1,000 residents, five hotels, a newspaper - The Ferguson Eagle - a brewery, and wholesale liquor store.

Ferguson was promoted as the money-making place, the centre of the rich mining district of the Lardeau. Pack trains carried supplies up to the mines and returned with ore; daily stages moved passengers to and from the steam-powered paddlewheelers on Arrow and Kootenay Lakes. A branch line of railway followed, linking Trout Lake to Kootenay Lake.

Still, with the inaccessibility of the mines, shipping costs were so high that only the best ore could be shipped out for smelting. A 30-ton Vulcan smelter was erected to treat local ores, but the smelter cracked on its trial run and was never used again. Other problems were the long winters with snow that could be 20 feet or more deep (these days, metal-clad roofs to shed snow are the rule rather than the exception).

The mines themselves were on narrow trails switchbacking up the slopes, so high that even firewood had to be packed in. While world champion horse and mule packer, Andy Daney, packed everything from eggs to 600-pound cook-stoves up the mountain trail, his greatest feat was moving a 2.5 km cable which weighed several tons. Tying his horses and mules head and tail in a line and dis-tributing the weight over them all, he delivered the cable, which was to become part of an aerial train from the Triune Mine. Unfortunately, the aerial tram was destroyed during the first winter. When the price of silver dropped, so did Ferguson's fortunes.

Today, Ferguson is a broad clearing that stands apart from the dense bush surrounding it. A highway sign directs you to it from the junction at Trout Lake, between the gas station/general store, where tourists stop to pose for snapshots beside the antique gas pumps, and a highway maintenance yard. The road, although better maintained these days, is still narrow and climbing.

Towns like Trout Lake and Ferguson were primarily company towns, and when the employer left town, so did its employees. In some cases, the abandoned houses were leveled, in others the property sold as-is. If nobody bought it, ownership of the townsite would revert back to the previous owner, frequently a private person or the Ministry of Mines. Only land that was owned by the Crown before the property was developed would revert back to the Crown, thus the zoning would often remain intact.

That's the way New Westminster-based Niho Land & Cattle Company bought Ferguson back in 1998, and the company has since resold it, lot by lot, to recreational users. Although Ferguson once had its own utilities, including electric light and a waterworks system, they went the way of the town's buildings (below, in Trout Lake, grid power didn't arrive until the early 1990s). Still, Ferguson offers advantages: a flat, clear site that's ready for building a cabin, or, as many purchasers do, park an RV and enjoy some of the Lardeau's other treasures: abundant wildlife, mostly deer, elk and caribou. Locals know the area as the home of the King Kong Bundi, which they claim is one of the largest deer in the province. The largest trout in the world come up the Lardeau River to spawn, and Trout Lake has good fishing for Dolly Varden, char, turbot and rainbow trout. Fifteen miles away, a $4-million heli-skiing lodge offers some of the best heli-skiing in the world, and the natural hot springs of the Nakusp area aren't much further.

Ferguson isn't an anomaly, though. All over BC, ghost towns are coming back to life: a few miles west of Kaslo, Nashville, which also closed in the 1950s, and Sheep Creek, southwest of Salmo, which once produced 70% of the gold in the Nelson area, are among Niho's investments. The company also recently sold 950 acres in the townsite of Anyox, in northwestern BC. A separate company, Anyox Hydroelectric Ltd. (partnering with pop star jewel) plans to reactivate a dormant hydro dam and resell energy to BC Hydro's Green and Alternative Energy Program. North of Campbell River, 10,000 feet of waterfront at Port H'Kusam, including the shell of the hotel, saloon and post office (once one of the first Steamer stops on that part of the coast), could become several hundred waterfront and waterview lots. Some, like Nashville, offer serviced lots.

In its first building boom in more than a hundred years, Ferguson now has cabins dotting the meadow. As for the new owners of the individual lots, their reasons for buying are as varied as the lots themselves.

Cory Hallett bought a lot in Ferguson in 2001. "I hope to build a fishing cabin on it one day," says the Regina, Saskatchewan, resident. "In the meantime, I thought it would be a good investment." After hearing about Ferguson from someone at the bank where he works, Hallett was so keen to buy that he did so sight-unseen. After paying around $5,000 for the lot and $1,000+ for legal fees, he decided the $500 he'd be paying out to inspect the property before buying was too high given the low risk he anticipated from the purchase, so he bought first and viewed it later. Although he's only managed to see his little piece of Heaven once, Hallett still plans to make it the focus of an annual fishing holiday.

Another purchaser, Doug Pickard, had a more personal reason for buying his lot in Ferguson. "My dad was involved in mining in that area and he fell in love with the country," says Pickard. Raised in Stettler, Alberta, Pickard's father worked on the "Silver Cup" and "True Fisher" claims, during the area's brief second boom in the early 1950s. "In fact, he knew the Daney family - Andy Daney's son," Pickard says. Though his father finished his work in the area in 1953, moving on to Princeton, and then Ainsworth, down on Kootenay Lake, Pickard says his father always wanted to return to the Lardeau. In a way, he has - Pickard makes a regular pilgrimage from his home in Trail to Ferguson to honour the memory of his father. Eventually, he would like to build a small cabin on the site to take advantage of the excellent fishing opportunities in the area. Until then, he's content with his bit of history.